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In 1604 King James came to power in England. We hear his name often, as the most trusted version of the English Bible was translated during his reign – the King James Version. He was relatively tolerant of other religious opinions, except those that openly criticized the Church of England.

Secret congregations began to form, as dissenters left their persecuting churches. One such group was formed not too far from Sherwood Forest, in a small village of Nottinghamshire called Scrooby. The authorities found out about them, and they decided to flee to Holland, where they had heard they could practice their faith freely. In 1608, they made it to Amsterdam, and in 1609 they migrated en-masse to Leiden, Holland.

The majority of this group, led by Pastor John Robinson, were still in Leiden in 1620. Joining with a few followers yet in England, they decided to travel to the “New World”. The group in Holland hired a ship called the Speedwell, and another ship was hired in London – called the Mayflower. They planned to meet in Southampton, England, and sail together to Northern Virginia. They met in Southampton on July 22, but the Speedwell had been leaking on the journey from Holland, so they spent the better part of a week patching her up. They finally set sail on Aug 5, but the Speedwell was leaking again, so they stopped in Dartmouth for repairs.

On Aug 21, after the Speedwell was patched again – the two ships set out for the Americas. But about 300 miles out to see, the Speedwell began to leak again, and it was determined that the ship was not sea-worthy. The two ships returned to Plymouth, England, where they abandoned the Speedwell. The cargo was transferred onto the Mayflower, and while several of the frustrated Pilgrims simply went home, most of them crammed themselves onto what was now a very crowded boat.

Finally, on Sept 6, the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England, and headed for America. She was carrying 102 passengers, including 3 pregnant women. One baby was born on the voyage, but another young boy died of pneumonia. On November 9, they sited Cape Cod – after 66 days at sea. Because of the delays caused by the leaking Speedwell, many of them had spent the better part of four months on the boat.

Arriving much later than expected, they erected hasty shelters. But they simply were not prepared for the harsh New England winter, and nearly one-half of this group died before spring. But persevering in prayer, and aided by the friendly Indians – those remaining reaped a bountiful harvest that next summer. The grateful Pilgrims declared a three-day feast in December of 1621 to thank God and celebrate with their Indian friends. It was America’s first Thanksgiving.

This began an annual tradition in New England, and it began to spread to other Colonies as well. The first National Thanksgiving Day was Nov 26th, 1789, declared by George Washington at the recommendation of the Congress. From his declaration:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor. . . . Now, therefore, I do appoint Thursday, the 26th day of November 1789 . . . that we may all unite to render unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection.

National Thanksgiving Day declarations sporadically followed this one, until Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November for an annual day of Thanksgiving in 1863. From his declaration:

We often forget the Source from which the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies come. . . . No human wisdom hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God. . . . I therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States . . . to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

This was changed to the fourth Thursday of November by a Congressional Resolution in 1841. What you may not know is that the President still officially declares this day every year. This past Thursday, George Bush signed the 2006 Thanksgiving Day Declaration. It’s too long for me to read in full, but here are the opening and closing paragraphs:

As Americans gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for the many ways that our Nation and our people have been blessed…

…On this Thanksgiving Day, and throughout the year, let us show our gratitude for the blessings of freedom, family, and faith, and may God continue to bless America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 23, 2006, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage all Americans to gather together in their homes and places of worship with family, friends, and loved ones to reinforce the ties that bind us and give thanks for the freedoms and many blessings we enjoy.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.


From a sermon by Everett McCoy, "The Power of Thanksgiving (1 of 2 in series)" 8/3/2008.

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